Thursday, June 29, 2017

They Needed a Bigger Boat...Real Shipwrecks, Real Stories

Recently, I have embarked on a new, rather morbid fascination with nonfiction featuring shipwrecks and the stranded crew's quests for survival.  This is a departure from my usual crime spree nonfiction and my love for political nonfiction.  Shipwreck: the very word conjures up images of carnage, desperation, survival, unkempt beards, cannibalism, and the ultimate battle between the forces of nature and man.  As a society, we have romanticized the idea of a shipwreck, of the castaways stranded, and of the epic battle to get home.  There is absolutely nothing romantic about Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick.  These are stories of horrible circumstances, lives in peril, the brutality of nature, the despair and hopelessness that come with the dawning realization that they are probably not going to survive.  Nevertheless... I hate to admit, these books, although stark, gritty, horrifying, and enthralling do nothing to dispel the myth of the rugged sailor making life and death decisions and prevailing over the environment.  Once immersed, the reader will realize that these are also stories of strength, grit, perseverance, hope, faith, and the discovery of what mankind's spirit is truly made of when confronted with doom.  The shipwreck, which is a momentous disaster, is just the beginning...

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick was published 2000 and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction that same year.  It traces the voyage of the Essex, a whale ship out of Nantucket that served as the inspiration for Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  The Essex was commissioned to venture into the Pacific Ocean and hunt sperm whales, a valuable source of whale oil in the 19th century.  In 1820, more than year into their voyage, a sperm whale bull attacked and sank the ship, leaving 20 men stranded on small whaling boats, adrift in the Pacific.  The tale inevitably devolves in tough decisions, bad decisions, desperation, death, and an unlikely ending. In the Heart of the Sea weaves a tale of a disaster that affected a crew, a community, and became a grave warning that resonated throughout generations of sailors: do not underestimate nature.  He is sparse with his descriptions, focusing on drawing out the action and the development of the crew members as they changed from everyday sailors to survivors.  Drawing largely from the account of Thomas Nickerson, the 14 year old cabin boy who was one of the few survivors of the ordeal, Philbrick's account of the Essex focuses less on the actual crash but more on the reactions, actions, and lack thereof from the crew.  He develops the crew based on the historical evidence, primary resources, and personal accounts recorded from the survivors; the reader witnesses crew members either rise to occasion of survival or sink abysmally into despair. What makes this book so startling is that Philbrick does not shy away from pointing out the numerous mistakes and fatal decisions made that, if done differently, would have made this shipwreck just a mere inconvenience.  However, Philbrick writes the tragedy with grace, understanding, and empathy.  It never crosses the line into the sensational; this is not a sensational story meant to illicit shock and a fascination for gore. It is to remind audiences of the ultimate cost of fighting nature and the prices sometimes paid by men who considered the seas their real home.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing was originally published in 1959.  Comprised from the diaries kept by crew members and from lengthy interviews conducted by Lansing with the elderly remaining survivors, Endurance is an intimate portrait of the ill-fated exploration voyage to Antarctica in 1914.  Unlike In the Heart of the Sea, Endurance could be considered the ultimate survival success story.  Under the helm of Captain Ernest Shackleton, the Endurance sailed to Antarctica, became trapped in ice, and was eventually crushed from the pressures of the changing ice pack flows.  This left the 28 man crew faced with surviving a landscape of nothing but ice and freezing water, not to mention the prospect of a more than 800 mile journey to inhabited land.  Eventually, 28 men were rescued. Their ordeal became the poster child for successful survival, exemplary leadership, and unbreakable teamwork under dire conditionsEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage is more of a biographical account of the ordeal, rather than a typical historical nonfiction.  Lansing does not spend time discussing the circumstances in which the Endurance sailed; the story is about the ship, the wreck, and the quest for survival.  There is little speculation, interpretative insight, or later research in this book, just straight recounting of the facts. With this style and with the incredulous circumstances of the event, the narrative definitely reads more of a fiction action story than a true to life story.  However, Lansing does an excellent job in building up hope, then dashing it, then rebuilding.  The reader is constantly on the edge, wondering if the next page spells disaster or rescue for the crew.

These are two vastly different accounts of vastly different tragedies.  However, these books are well worth reading around the same time.  It is an interesting break down of how similar situations can have completely outcomes.  I could recommend reading them in the order I presented here; the technological differences and progression of communication in less than a hundred years is incredible and no doubt had some impact on the events' endings.  However, the human spirit and the basic instinct to survive has not changed much. Readers will be buoyed by the resilience of the crew members; these books, these memories of strength and courage might serve as a reminder that we are tougher than we think.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Discovering the Secrets of the Universe...and of Yourself

When a book starts out with "The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea," you know you're in for a rough ride.  The heartbreaking and beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is rough, soft, draining, and uplifting in a way that is hoped for but unexpected.  Published in 2012 by American poet and author, Benjamin Alire SáenzAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel marketed to the young adult audience and explores a several year friendship between two Mexican-American young men, Aristotle (Ari) and Dante, who could not be anymore different.  However, they are strangely drawn to one another and become fast friends.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is more than just a story about friends though; it is about discovering the secrets of the universe, which, in the end, is discovering who you truly are.

Ari is a quiet, unsure teen, who is struggling with himself and with his family dynamics, loving, but wounded by the absence of his imprisoned brother.  Dante comes from a supportive, open home and is confident, self-possessed and borderline brilliant.  One of the more controversial aspects of this book is the friendship between Ari and Dante; Ari is struggling with his sexual identity, while Dante is confident in his homosexuality, just like he is confident in everything else about himself.  Their friendship becomes increasingly complicated when Ari realizes that he might be more emotionally invested in Dante than he expected to be.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
This book is one of the best  YA novels I have read.  It unfolds slowly, but beautifully.  The characters are onions; there are layers and layers to each characters and Sáenz seems to delight in revealing their secrets. The characters are the main force in this book and they are well developed and are extremely easy to relate to. The action is driven methodically towards a climax that is rather predictable, but at the same time satisfying. Sáenz was not afraid to tackle hard hitting topics.  The book covers a myriad of topics, ranging from sexuality to family secrets to growing up to self-acceptance.  Ari's fear that he will become just another angry, imprisoned Mexican-American man like his brother is an undercurrent that drives his actions; he struggles with his emotions and feelings, and tries hard to balance his own wants, Dante's wants, and what he perceives are his parents'  wants.  The concept of keeping the peace with his parents also colors his relationships with others; Sáenz captures the never-ending angst of trying to be yourself while simultaneously trying to be the child your parents want you to be.  Sáenz also illustrates the difficulty of being a a homosexual Mexican-American male, especially during the time setting of the book (1987).  Ari fights his blossoming feelings for Dante, largely because he cannot mesh being Mexican-American and being in love with a male.  His struggle is contrasted with Dante, who does not seem to be bothered by his ethnicity and sexuality at all.  This quiet confidence makes Ari even more uncomfortable and it leads him to make some choices that will define his and Dante's paths forever.  Love is a powerful motivator in this book and Sáenz makes sure to illustrate the different types of love; parental, sibling, friends, romantic, all types of love can impact and reveal the secret of who you truly are.  Young love is more than just a flight of fancy in this book.  Sáenz makes is a defining concept for the characters and draws the reader into reflection of love being a defining characteristic of life.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is Sáenz's love letter to youth, self-discovery, and second chances.  You will cry, you will reflect, you will cringe, and you will be pulled into this story of love, self-discovery, and ultimately, self-acceptance.  It will make you view your life with new eyes and wonder what is holding you back from self love, self acceptance, and your own secret to the universe. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Rook Takes Bishop...

 As a librarian, people suggest books to me almost constantly.  Most suggestions are well-intended, but I usually do not heed them; I have very particular tastes in books and most of the suggestions do not make the cut.  However, when a coworker suggested The Rook by Daniel O'Malley, I considered and then put it on hold.

Oh. My. Gosh.  What a book.  A 2012 debut (a DEBUT!!!!) novel from O'Malley, an Australian author, The Rook begins with a woman in a park, at dark, surrounded by dead people wearing latex gloves, and no memory.  Long story short, Myfanwy Thomas is a member of the Checquy, a secret government organization dedicated to fighting the supernatural.  The Checquy, as Thomas discovers, is a hierarchical government agency that deals not only with supernatural events, but also with the everyday humdrum boring monotony of government work.  That is all I am going to give away about the plot.  This is the type of book that needs to slowly unfold as you read it; it is best to approach this book without any preconceived notions or ideas.  There is definitely magical and supernatural elements at work in this novel; there is also startlingly human elements at play, emotions, plans, and a search for self that pushes the plot forward and helps the reader more readily relate to the characters.

The Rook has been described as an "adult Harry Potter", which is offensive to both series.  This is far different from Harry Potter, which transports the reader to another world and encourages them to explore their feelings and imagination.  The Rook takes real life and adds a spin to it; albeit, the spin is complex, but not a stretch to the point where the reader doubts the validity.  Anyone can see themselves as the bedraggled government worker who is burned out on their job and the politics of the job to the point where an militia of ghouls, an infestation of zombies, or a dragon hatching is just another mound of paperwork.  What O'Malley manages to do with this book is create a mystery in a setting that is perceived as everyday and boring to the people in the book.  However, by having a protagonist with no memory, O'Malley still manages to tell a story and immerse the reader in a new world at the same time.  There is constantly a thin line between fantasy and real life throughout the novel and the reader finds themselves weaving in and out of the past and the present and questioning what is normal and what is not.  Flashbacks in books are frequently poorly handled, but O'Malley finds a clever way to catch the reader up on the past and on the vast array of information and characters presented.

Author Daniel O'Malley
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is the characters that O'Malley creates.  Most of the Checquy's members are recruited because they posses supernatural powers.  These powers range from small to nuclear (literally) and are the sword arm of the Chequy's power. O'Malley creates characters with personalities to fit their powers and these people are what make this book exciting, intriguing, funny, and dangerous.  There is an vast array of different personalities and these differences shine through in use of their powers and in the witty, clever dialogue that peppers the story.  Even the characters who are meant to be boring government pencil pushers are interesting and well-done.  Without O'Malley's talent for creating characters, The Rook would be lackluster.  It is truly the human element that triumphs the supernatural, making for both an exhilarating climatic end and a hunger for more.

I cannot fangirl enough about this book.  I cannot believe I went four years without knowing this book existed.  It is the best of mystery, the best of fantasy, and the best of mild horror all wrapped into one book.  If you read anything in 2017, please read The Rook.  It is suspenseful, funny, intellectual, and intriguing while remaining fast-paced and exciting.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Getting Cozy with Jenn McKinlay

There are times in our lives where the latest Pulitzer Prize winner is staring at you, the New York Times bestseller in nonfiction is whispering to you, and that awesome 2017 reading challenge that you have yet to start is making you feel guilty... and all you want is a fun, quick read that isn't romance. If this is you right now, never fear, Jenn McKinlay is here. McKinlay is an American author who specializes in cozy mysteries, which are mysteries that are short, fun, filled with quirky characters, usually a quaint town with lots of secrets, and a dead body. McKinlay has five series, three under her name and two under different pen names: Library Lover's Mysteries; Cupcake Bakery Mysteries; London Hat Shop Mysteries; Good Buy Girls Mysteries (writing as Josie Belle); Decoupage Mysteries (writing as Lucy Lawrence.) 

Although her pen name series are fun, they were short-lived.  It is the three series under her own name which are McKinlay's draw.  McKinlay uses a basic outline to establish her series, which makes her writing like a old comfortable friend; you know there are some surprises, but you also know that her books are not going to disappoint and that you will be left with a satisfied sense of happiness upon reading.  However, the mysteries are anything but formulaic. Her murders are often grisly and McKinlay makes a point to always highlight the senselessness of violence.  What makes McKinlay's work a slight departure from the normal cozy mystery is that McKinlay does a wonderful job of lightly touching upon the sometimes evil nature of man. McKinlay never makes murder or crime seem glamorous or exciting; she is quick to remind that death hurts many people and that crime can destroy a community.  Her villians are sometimes seemingly justified, sometimes not; either way, McKinlay makes sure that justice is served and healing begins in the community.  That being said, McKinlay also manages to maintain a light mood in the book with fun, exciting side characters (try a rival who dances in the streets dressed as a cupcakes and stalks the protagonist's bakery!) who add to the protagonist's life, in both good ways and in bad!  McKinlay is a female-centric writer; her protagonists are women who are strong, independent, and
smart.  They dabble in romance (with strong, handsome hunks, of course!) and know when to rely on their friends and family who love them.  The Library Lover's series is a great series to start with; Lindsey is a library director in a small, seaside community, which has its secrets to reveal throughout the series.  She is smart, funny, savvy, and is accompanied by a cast of characters who leave the reader laughing out loud.  As a librarian, I believe that McKinlay definitely got the feel, drama, gossip, triumphs, and failures of library life correct, which makes these even more enjoyable.

All in all, these are not hard boiled crime novels and you will not be left with burning questions of man's morality and the future of humanity. However, this is the draw of cozy mysteries! You get to be a part of a world where life has a slightly rosier tinge and you get to play detective. Cozies are a great, temporary getaway from life, and all of McKinlay's series provide the chance to take a break, read a book, and have a bit of fun.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Murder Most French AND English- The Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series

First novel in the Chief Inspector
Armand Gamache series
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec has a knack, not to mention a reputation, of falling into strange and dangerous murder investigations. He also has a knack and a reputation of solving them. The creation of award-winning Canadian author, Louise Penny, Gamache appeared on the mystery genre scene in 2005 in Still Life, winning Penny numerous awards and kicking off the start to a continuing series, with the 12th and latest book, A Great Reckoning, debuting this year. Based in the culturally tumultuous Quebec, Canada, in a village called Three Pines, Gamache faces down various cunning killers, motivated by greed, ambition, insanity, hate, jealousy, and sometimes, under the surface, racial tensions and stand-offs between the Francophone Quebecois and the Anglophone Quebecois. This last tension plays a running theme throughout Penny's series. True to real life, Penny weaves the ebb and flow of the tension of the primarily French Quebec in a primarily English Canada; this causes racial tensions to flare and a general confusion over who 'belongs' and who does not. This, among many things, is key to Penny's flawless storytelling in her novels.

Gamache can easily be compared to Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot; he is detail oriented and believes that the solutions always lie within the personal interactions of people, rather than the physical clues that remain from the crime. His observations and analysis of the interactions is what primarily drives the story lines. Gamache, unlike many of the people around him, is largely without prejudices and utilizes his personal kindness and compassion in his investigations. He attempts to hammer these virtues into his fellow police officers and into the people involved in the investigations, suspects and witnesses alike. However, Gamache is not completely flawless; past mistakes come back to haunt him in several books and people who he inadvertently scorned come back with a vengeance. However, Gamache is the hero that everyone wants; he is calm, quiet, compassionate, deeply in love with his wife, and tries his best to balance the good and the bad in all people. He is the cop everyone wants on their case... except for the bad guy, because Gamache will most certainly nab them.

Penny does a startlingly wonderful job at making the reader want to back everything up and move to
Author Louise Penny
this quaint, beautiful village, even though murder seems to happen at an alarming rate in the area. Penny, as a Canadian native herself, infuses love and awe in her descriptions of the landscape and of the traditions and eccentricities of Canadian life and Quebec village life. Seasons play a big part in the series and Penny describes the weather's affect on the village and the people in a way that makes the weather almost another character. Penny's secondary characters, although memorable and crucial to the plot, still play second-fiddle to the power and the force of Gamache's character. Penny also does a great job describing the settings without using too many words; she uses the descriptions to lay the groundwork for the conversations and interactions that drive the story.

These stories are much better than I had expected. Penny took an unusual circumstance in Canada, the schism in Quebec, and wrote eloquent, complex murder mysteries that incorporate the tension. Readers will be completely immersed in these stories and will feel not only a part of Three Pines, but also like they have met and known everyone Penny writes about.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg

I grew up with an undeniable fascination for the lost Imperial Russian Royal family (and particularly Anastasia, of course). I remember watching Unsolved Mysteries back in 1998 and listening to Robert Stack describe how Anna Anderson's ears matched Anastasia Romanov's ears at 14 different points. Well then, mystery solved, I thought. Of course that's Anastasia.

I was about ten. I didn't need much convincing.

The later discovery of the Romanov remains quashed any wishful thinking; the entire Romanov family had indeed died back in 1918 via firing squad in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Like Marie Antoinette, the Romanovs have endured in the collective public consciousness as tragic victims of a violent political upheaval. We see that beautiful young family in photographs and shake our heads. We mourn the loss of a royal dynasty. 

Helen Rappaport re-establishes the Romanovs as people in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. Her sharp focus on their final fourteen days highlights the Romanovs' familial relationships as they struggle to stave off the boredom that comes with being secluded in the private Ipatiev House. The Romanovs are kept alive as political pawns, isolated from the outside world, and have long ago lost the agency to determine or affect their fate. 

So what does a family do when they're isolated, when they've given up hope? They band together. The readers know what's coming; the dread lies in reading their monotonous daily trifles, their grinding routines to keep themselves occupied. 

It's hard to disagree with Rappaport's poor assessment of Tsar Nicholas II's reign: the introverted Tsar preferred to shut himself away inside the Alexander Palace rather than acknowledge Russia's challenges or shifting political climate. His German-born Tsaritsa, Alexandra, had given him four daughters before producing a sickly male heir, Alexey. Alexandra's reliance on an unpopular holy man called Rasputin to curtail Alexey's bleeding attacks had seriously wounded the family's pious public image. By the time Nicholas abdicated in 1917, Russia was in the midst of a full-blown Revolution.

Author and Historian Helen Rappaport.
Courtesy of
But Rappaport isn't really interested in exploring the failures of the fallen monarch. Instead, she focuses on the personalities stuck in solitary confinement. Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia sew. Alexey plays with tin toys. Nicholas reads. Sewing and reading occasionally give way to card games. Talking with the multitude of guards is forbidden, though Nicholas and the girls try anyway. Maria, in particular, is caught in a "compromising situation" with a guard who'd smuggled a cake into the house for her 19th birthday.   

Rappaport's contrast of small routine to the big picture politics is brutally effective. There was nothing for the Romonov family to do but wait as Commandant Yurovsky worked out the particulars of their execution.

As soon as I finished reading, I grabbed my dog and took her for a long walk in the sunshine. Don't read this book at night. 

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport is available at the library and as an e-book on Overdrive.